The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction – Walter Benjamin: Notes

I read this essay and I know everyone says it is crucial reading but I didn’t really believe them…until I read it!

It was published in 1936

80 years ago!

I don’t really know how to analyse it at the moment but thought it would be best just to jot down some key quotes that hit me when I read it…

Especially as I am working with film now … some extent ….or so it seems.

Here is also a video with Susan Buck- Morse talking about the work… very succinctly and  she makes the points which are probably most relevant for the work I am doing at the moment…

I guess I will have to think very hard about how much, if at all I agree with him but some of the discussion in the Afterword especially, I can’t ignore considering the work I am making.

I think I could read it again and again and still find new quotes… the whole of it is quotable!

Here are some links to to other summaries one from Yale and  blog of a Prelim Study group which looks as if it maybe useful if not from a known academic source.

So here goes:

It starts with this quote from Paul Valery

“Our fine arts were developed, their types and uses were established, in times very different from the present, by men whose power of action upon things was insignificant in comparison with ours. But the amazing growth of our techniques, the adaptability and precision they have attained, the ideas and habits they are creating, make it a certainty that profound changes are impending in the ancient craft of The Beautiful. In all the arts there is a physical component which can no longer be considered or treated as it used to be, which cannot remain unaffected by our modern knowledge and power. For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.”

—Paul Valery, Pieces sur L’art, Le Conquete de l’ubiquite


 Page 3

In principle, the work of art has always been reproducible. What man has made, man has always been able to make again. Such copying was also done by pupils as an artistic exercise, by Masters in order to give works wider circulation, ultimately by anyone seeking to make money. Technological reproductions of the work of art is something else, something that has been practised intermittently throughout history, at widely separated intervals there with growing intensity. The Greeks had only two processes for reproducing works of art is technologically: casting and embossing……………. It was wood engraving that made graphic arts technologically reproducible for the first time; drawings could be reproduced long before printing did the same for the word. The huge changes that printing (the technological reproducibility of writing) brought about in literature are well known. However, of the phenomenon   that we are considering on the scale of history here they are merely a particular instance – Though of course particularly important one. Wood engraving is joined in the course of the Middle Ages by copperplate engraving and etching, then in the early 19th century by the geography.

Page 4                                                               (SPEED)

 With lithography, reproductive technology reaches a radically new stage……….. photography made it possible for graphic arts to a company everyday life with pictures. It started to keep pace with printing. However in these early days it was outstripped, the decades after the invention of lithography, by photography. With photography, in the process of pictorial reproduction the hand was for the first time relieved of the principal artistic responsibilities which henceforth lay with the eye alone as it peered into the lens. since the eye perceives faster than the hand can draw, the process of pictorial reproduction was so enormously speeded up that it was able to keep pace with speech. The film operator, turning the handle in the studio, captures the images as rapidly as the actor speaks. Whilst in lithography illustrated magazine was present in essence, in photography it was the sound film………. These convergent endeavours led the foreseeable situation that Paul Valery described in the sentence:

“just as water, gas and electric power come to us from afar and enter and with almost no effort on our part, they’re serving our needs, so we shall be supplied be supplied with pictures or sound sequences that, at the touch of a button, almost a wave of the hand, arrive and likewise depart”

 page 5

Around 1900 technological reproduction had reached a standard which it is not merely be done to take the totality of traditional artworks as its province, imposing the most profound changes on the impact of such work; it is even gained a place for itself among artistic modes of procedure.

  As regards studying that standard, nothing is more revealing than how its twin manifestations – reproduction of the work of art and a new artist cinematography – redound upon art at its traditional form.


 Even the most perfect reproduction, one thing stands out: the here and now the work of art – it’s unique existence in the place where it is at the moment………..

Page 6

The whole province  of genuineness is beyond technological (and of course not only technological”) reproducibility reference 2 about the idea of genuine being recent concept..

 a technological reproduction is more autonomous, relative to the original, then one made by hand. Through photography, for instance, it is able to bring out aspects of the original that can be accessed only by the lens “adjustable and selecting its viewpoint arbitrarily” and not by the human eye, which is able to employ such techniques as enlargement or slow motion to capture images that are quite simply beyond natural  optics.

It can also place the copy of the original in situations beyond the reach of the original itself

It makes it possible for the original to come closer to the person  apprehending it is in, whether in the form of a photograph or in that of the gramophone record.

Even if the circumstances into which the product of the technological reproduction of the work of art may be introduced in no way in pair the continued existence of the work  otherwise, it’s here and now will in any case be devalued.

page 7

The genuineness of the thing is the  quintessence of everything about it since its creation that can be handed down, come its material duration to the historical witness that it bears.……  in  in the reproduction, where the former has been removed from human perception, it is  that the latter  also starts to wobble.

Reproductive technology, we might say in general terms, removes the thing reproduced from the realm of tradition. In making many copies of the reproduction, he substitutes for its unique incidence multiplicity of incidences. And in allowing the reproduction to come closer to whatever situation the person apprehending it is in, it actually rises what is reproduced.

Upheaval of tradition… Intimately bound up with mass movements of our day… Most powerful agent’s film…

Page 8

The social significance of film is unthinkable without this destructive, this cathartic side: namely, liquidation of the value of tradition in the cultural heritage. This phenomenon is it is most tangible in major historical films

Abel Gance …. 1927: Shakespeare…… Will make films all legends all mythologies and all myths all founders of religions indeed awaits their films resurrection,


Within major historical periods, along with changes in the overall mode of being of the human collective, there are also changes in the manner of its sense perception.

Page 9 …… Changing medium of perception occurring in our own day may be understood as a fading of aura, the social conditions of that fading can be demonstrated.

‘aura” of natural objects 

Unique manifestation of remoteness, however close it may be .

…….. gazing at a mountain range on the horizon…..

Current fading of aura depends upon social conditions ….. which which has to do with two circumstances both connected with the increasing significance of the masses in present-day life.

 ‘Getting closer to things’ in both spatial and human terms is every bit as passionate concern of today’s masses  (~reference 4 ) as a tendency to surmount the uniqueness of each circumstance by seeing it in reproduction **************


Rear oneself closer to the masses in human terms may mean: having one’s functioning society removed from you We portraitist painting famous surgeon at breakfast not necessarily capturing sitters function in society more accurately than a 16th century painter portraying doctors is imposing presences e.g. Rembrandt

there is no denying that we see evidence every day of the need to apprehend objects in pictures, or rather in copies… Of pictures from very close to

REMOTENESS of image important see reference 5

page 10

REFERENCE NEWSPAPERS AND  illustrated papers

And there is no mistaking the difference between the reproduction, such as illustrated papers and weekly news roundups hold in readiness)  and the picture. Uniqueness in duration I was tightly intertwined in the latter as our transience in  reiterability in the former. Stripping the object of its sheath, shattering the Aura, bear witness to a kind of perception where “since the similarity in the world” is so highly developed that, through reproduction, it even mines similarity  from what only happens once………….. The orientation of reality toward the masses  and of the masses toward reality is a process of unbounded consequence not only for thought but also for the way we see things. 


The oldest works of art,  Came into being in the service   of some ritual – magical at first, then religious.  now it is crucially important that this auric mode of being of the work of art never becomes completely separated from its ritual function Reference 5 

The “one-of-a-kind” value of the “genuine” work of art as its underpinnings in the ritual in which it had its original initial utility value.

Discussion about photography simultaneously arising with the dawn of socialism and theory of art for art’s sake rejecting the idea that art had any kind of social function To pay proper attention to this to understand what a work of art does when it can be reproduced by technology mean.

Page 12


The reason is that (these circumstances)  mean that: it’s being reproducible by technological means frees the work of art, for the first time in history, from its existence as a parasite upon ritual The reproduced work of art is to an ever-increasing extent the reproduction of a work of art designed for reproducibility (Reference seven..Which discusses cinematography and the fact

that the technological reproducability of films is rooted directly in the manner of their production  this not only facilitates the mass circulation films in the most direct way; it’s positively necessitates it.… COST

From a photographic plate, for instance, many prints can be made the question of the genuine print has no meaning. 

However, the instant the criterion of genuineness in our production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval. Rather than being underpinned by ritual, it came to be underpinned by a different practice: politics



Reception and appreciation of works of art two points of emphasis

Cultic value: presence more important than the fact that they are seen e.g. Alcon cave wall magic concealment hidden from spectators

As individual instances of artistic production become emancipated from the context of religious ritual, opportunities for displaying the product increase. Page 30

page 13

Display value

With the various methods of reproducing the work of art by technological means, this display ability increases so enormously that the quantitative shift between its two poles switches, as in primeval times, to become a qualitative change of nature. In primeval times, because  of the absolute weight placed on its cultic value, the work of art became primarily an instrument of magic that was only subsequently,… Acknowledged to be a work of art. Today, in the same way, because of the absolute weight placed upon his display value, the work of art is becoming an image with entirely new functions, …… The artistic function, stands out as one that may be subsequently be deemed incidental. Reference 10 (i.e.commodity)….Currently photography and film.


Page 14


In photography, display value starts to drive cultic value back along the whole line.

Apart from portrait – human face

In the cult of recalling accident or dead loved ones the cultic value of the image find its last refuge.….One final glimpse of aura.


Deserted Parisian streets

1900 crime scene


exhibits in the trial that is history.

That is what constitutes their hidden political significance. They already call for a specific type of reception. Free-floating contemplation is no longer an appropriate reaction here. They unsettle the viewer: he feels obliged to find a specific way of approaching them.

At the same time illustrated journals used captions different titles of paintings in film this is worse because  the previous sequence of images also direct.

page 15


page 17

influence of time. Discussion of film may be hieroglyphics not sacred but certainly supernatural  fairy like miraculous


Film camera mediating the performance of the screen actor to the audience. Editing close-ups.

lack of spontaneity to the audience Who are there

Audience are  asked to examine the report but with no personal contact with the performer

The audience empathises with the performer only by empathising with the camera. In this assumes the camera stands: it tests.

reference 11 the director in a film studio occupies precisely the same position as the test conductor in a vocational aptitude test

) So the cultic value cannot be judged from this position.

IX Performing

Film is more about the actor betraying yourself to a camera rather than portraying another person to the audience

discussion as a film actor being exiled from the stage and herself

page 19

The projector plays with the shadow of the actor in front of the audience was the actor must be content to act in front of the camera

so the aura around the actor and a character and therefore lost discusses then the distinction of time and place within film

X Film

He discusses the transportation of his reflection his mirror image to an audience

The audience of consumers who constitute the market

page 22

 film today may,,,, further revolutionary critique of show could social conditions, of property order

Benjamin states that

everyone has an opportunity to rise from passerby to film extra

page 23……………. the distinction between right and readership is thus in the process of losing its fundamental character. That distinction is becoming a functional one, assuming a different form from one case the next. The reader is constantly ready to become a writer. As an expert…….He gains access to authorship.

Literary authority is no longer grounded in specialist education …. It has become common  property.

Reference 14  technology used to be privileged particular any longer 

In Western Europe, capitalist excitation of film bars man’s modern man’s legitimate claim to be reproduced from being taken into consideration.

Given the circumstances, the film industry has every interest in arousing the participation of the masses by means of illusionary presentations and suggestive speculations.

page 24                                                        XI

 the illusory nature of film is a second-tier nature derives from editing. What this means is:

in the film studio the camera has penetrated so deeply into  reality the pure aspect of the latter,  in contaminated by the camera, emerges from a special procedure, namely being shot by a piece of photographic equipment adapted for the purpose and then pasted together with other shots of the same kind.

The camera every aspect of reality is here at its most artificial, and the sight of what is actually going on has become blue flower (of Romanticism) in the land of technology.

The feeling of immediacy??

Page 25

Magician and surgeon behave like  Painter and cameraman. The painter, while working, observed that the natural distance from the subject; the cameraman on the other hand, penetrates deep into the subject’s tissue.

Page 26

that is why the filmic portrayal of reality is  is of such  incomparably greater significance to people today, because it continues to provide the camera free aspect of reality that they are entitled to demand the work of art precisely by using the camera to penetrate that reality so thoroughly. 


The fact that the work of art can now be reproduced by technological means alters the relationship of the Masses to art

the conventional is enjoyed without criticism, a truly new is criticised with the version. In the cinema, the critics and pleasure seeking stances of the audience coincide.…… Nowhere more than in the cinema to the individual reactions that together make up the mass reaction of the audience proof from the outset to be caused by their immediately imminent  massing.

Page 27 painting is not able to form the object of simultaneous reception by large  numbers of people, as architecture always has been, as the epic once was, as film is today. ……….

As a result, the same audience as reacts in a progressive fashion to a grotesque film will inevitably,……become a backward one.

X111 geography of film

page 29

try to decide which is more gripping the artistic worth or scientific usefulness of film.

Benjamin believes them originally to be different and diverging but now to be identical.

Benjamin  discusses the geography of buildings and cities and how they were imprisoning with one film came it made us free to explore them in adventurous journeys

 different techniques to slow motion and closer “bring out wholly new structural formations” slow motion gliding, floating, supernatural

Page 30

“Different above all is that the space permeated by human consciousness is replaced by one that is unconsciously permeated.” 

Only the camera can show us the optical unconscious, as it is only through psychoanalysis that we learn of the compulsive unconscious.


It is always being among our most important functions to generate demand for  Whose full satisfaction the time has not yet come reference 18

(Andre Breton says that the main value of a work of art is its capacity to reflect the future. Shortly before film turn the viewing of images into a collective experience in front of the stereoscopes…… Image viewing by the individual once again quite the same power as it informally attached to the priest contemplation of the divine image.

The history of every art form is critical periods in which that form striker effects that are able to find expression without effort only when technology has reached a new level – that is to say in a new art form.

page 31

Dadaism  was trying to generate the effects that people now look for in film, using the tools of painting “sometimes literature”

The commercial marketability of their works of art and far less to the Dadaists than their non-marketability as objects of contemplative information They sought to achieve that non-marketability, that an realisable quality, not least by fundamental disparaging their material That work had above all to meet one requirement: must provoke public irritate

Solicitor in the hands of the dad of the work of art, from being a site that seduced the eye or a sound persuaded the ear, became a bullet. It flew towards the viewer striking him down.

Compare review will the screen on which the film roles to the canvas that carries the painting. The latter invites the viewer to contemplate; he is able, in front of it, to give himself up to his chain of associations. Watching a film, he cannot do this. Scarcely had he set eyes on i which is already different. It cannot be pinned down

By virtue of its technical structure f film has taken the wraps off the shock effect   that    Dadaism kept shrouded, as it were in the moral sphere. T                                                     XV

the mass is a matrix from which currently  all customary responses to works of art are springing newborn

Page 53

quantity has now become quality: the very much greater masses of participants have produced a changed kind of participation

Many people  including Duhamel blame film has a low level of participation it arises in the masses That the masses are looking to distraction as art course of immersion on the view is par which is a platitude.


Architecture has always provided the prototype of a work of art that is received in a state of  distraction and by the collective.

 Page 35 art will attack… The most difficult and crucial…Fresh tasks of apperception where it is able to mobilise the masses. It is currently doing so in film

This  kind of reception in the state of distraction that to an increasing extent is becoming apparent in all fields of art and is symptomatic of profound changes in appreciation has its true practice instrument in film.

 Film pushes back cult value by not only persuading the audience to adopt an appraising stands but also by ensuring that this appraising stance in the cinema does not include attentiveness The audience is an examiner, but a  distracted  one.


 page 38

Fascism leads logically to an aestheticiization of  political life . the violation of the masses, Regina leader cult it forces to their knees, corresponds the violation exercised by a film camera which fascism analysts in the service of producing cultic values

All efforts to   aestheticize politics culminate in one point. That one point is war. 

War, and war only, makes it possible to give mass movements on a colossal scale goal while retaining the traditional ownership structure. That is how the situation looks with political viewpoint From the viewpoint of technology it looks like this: only war makes it possible to mobilise all the technological resources of the present day while retaining the ownership structure. T


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